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Facts, context and comment about issues in the media | 15 Dec 10
Foreign correspondents we have known and loved
The study ‘Are foreign correspondents redundant?’ by Richard Sambrook, a Visiting Fellow at Oxford University’s Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, triggered a number of British journalists to write about real-life doyens and fictional characters in books and films that have defined the role for many of us.
In a column in the London Evening Standard , media commentator Roy Greenslade revealed that as a cub reporter he wanted to be Fowler, the veteran British correspondent in Graham Greene’s The Quiet American who ‘exhibited the values of instinct, local knowledge and good sources’. Greenslade looked up to the other world-weary, real-life foreign reporters of the time such as James Cameron and Rene Cutforth. He shared the ‘thrill’ of his first week at the Sunday Times working an ancient telex machine so that Marie Colvin, ‘a reporter to admire’, could file her exclusive interview with Colonel Gaddafi from Tripoli.
In a comment piece in The Guardian, Timothy Garton Ash agrees with Sambrook’s view that the foreign correspondent is an endangered species as ‘a type incomparably satirised by Evelyn Waugh in his novel Scoop, and celebrated by Alfred Hitchcock in his film Foreign Correspondent’. He also reminisces about his own stint as a foreign correspondent driving a ‘hard-sprung Lada’ around a devastated province of Kosovo in 1999 ‘when petrol stations could not be relied on to have petrol’.
Stephen Glover in The Independent asserted that we are less interested in foreign news than our parents and grandparents. He wrote: ‘Peregrine Worsthorne describes how as a young sub-editor on The Times in the early 1950s he spent hours compiling a list of the new Sudanese cabinet, with his superiors insisting on the correct spelling of every name.’
Richard Sambrook's study does not presume that we are no longer interested in foreign news. Sambrook, former Director of the BBC's Global News Division, writes: ‘Almost everyone everywhere is better informed about the world than was the case a century ago.’ His study is urging news organisations to evolve and adopt a more open and networked approach with new partnerships with locally based services and social media sites. The study also points out that the notion of ‘foreign news’ needs to better reflect the values of today’s multicultural societies.
The Oxford University news release highlights some of the reasons for the demise of the foreign correspondent, mentioning the economic pressures on western news organisations, and the fact that we now live in a digitised, globalised world where foreign correspondents are no longer central to how we learn about the world.
In a blog on the website BBC Editors, Jon Williams the BBC World News Editor, says the study should probably be called ‘Is the traditional white male ex-pat correspondent working from an office with a satellite link to London at risk?’ He says in that case, the answer would unquestionably be "yes" - but the title exaggerates to makes its point. He argues that the foreign correspondent may no longer be the only voice in a ‘networked world’, but he or she can be the most trusted voice.
The study findings were also picked up by journalism.co.uk , which concentrated on the fact that there is media expansion in Asia and developing countries with opportunities for local and freelance journalists.
In a Guardian Blog, Roy Greenslade says there is much to admire in Sambrook’s comprehensive report with the most telling points relating to a new approach to reporting offered by the twin phenomena of globalisation and the digital revolution.
Timothy Garton Ash concurs in his comment piece in The Guardian: ‘There is absolutely no point in sitting around moaning about this, over many a whisky in a now deserted press bar. Rather, we need to establish how what was of real value in the work of the 20th-century foreign correspondent can be preserved, and how we can use some wonderful opportunities that did not exist in the age of the telegraph and the telex.’